Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Power of Fleeting Negativity

As Bob and I were on our way to the gym in our golf cart the other day, we encountered our friends Joe and Marsha walking their dog Nora.

We stopped to say "Hello" and soon found ourselves involved in a passionate discussion of the elusiveness of happiness as a life goal. With a sigh, Nora - the world's most intuitive and well-behaved dog -- settled down for a snooze on the sidewalk.

We agreed that, life-enhancing as positive thinking can be, it isn't invariably helpful.

Sometimes allowing ourselves to feel anxious or sad or simply down for a while can be life-enhacing, too.

In our feel-good society, negative feelings are, all too often, ignored, dismissed or seen as a failure or an aberration.

But feelings regarded as negative are built into our brain's essential wiring.

We evolved, after all, in dangerous world where sitting around feeling mellow might get you eaten by a tiger. Listening for the crack of a twig, for footfalls behind us, feeling a little ill at ease and not complacent have been part of our survival skills for eons.

This means that we pay attention to our feelings when someone makes us feel uneasy. Such alertness to danger may spare us further distress -- and may even be lifesaving.

During a recent visit, my friend-since-kindergarten Pat Hill told a story that sent chills down my spine. It happened when she was in college at UC Santa Barbara and attending a frat party with three of her roommates. When they were about to leave -- at 2 a.m. -- she started talking with a guy who was a non-student and a casual acquaintance of one of the fraternity members. He told Pat that he lived in a landmark house on the ocean, one Pat had noticed and had always wanted to see up close. He offered Pat and her friends a tour of the place on the spot.  Her friends declined. Pat, despite gnawing misgivings about going to this stranger's home in the middle of the night, agreed to go with him.

What ensued was horrific: he held her captive in the vacant home (turned out he had a key because his mother was a realtor trying to sell the place) for seven hours, repeatedly trying to rape her and terrorizing her with violent outbursts. While she was finally able to talk him out of rape and mayhem and into taking her back to her general neighborhood all those hours later, she has often thought what might have happened -- and says that the experience was a hard lesson in paying attention to her own feelings of uneasiness as an essential early warning system.

Supposedly negative feelings can even be used on the way to a positive outcome.

In one of many exercises in cognitive behavioral therapy, a patient will, in his or her imagination, unleash a flood of negative expectations to help overcome anxiety over an issue or event. For example, if someone has sought therapy to deal with anxiety over public speaking, we might explore everything that could go wrong -- he opens his mouth to speak and says something incredibly stupid and the audience erupts with derisive laughter, some rushing out of the meeting room to tell friends and families about this epic gaffe. The next day, the New York Times has a banner headline: "Worst Speech Ever Given: The Unbelievable Babblings of X" Soon reporters from world-wide media are calling to ask "Did you really say that???" And so on....until the patient laughs at this overblown, exaggerated scenario and comes to the conclusion that even his or her worst fears would fall far short of this epic tale. The person may also decide that his more modest fears are, nonetheless, equally irrational.

And, perhaps, most of all, having negative thoughts and feelings from time to time is a sign that we're all normal.

No matter how good our lives might be, we all have down moments. The expectation that we should be continuously happy can lead to great unhappiness. On the other hand, letting our less-than-joyous feelings happen, without trying to edit them out or judge them, can smooth the ups and downs of life as we experience fully what it means to be human.

That's important to remember when we've reached a point in life when we look at our collective blessings, feel gratitude -- and then guilt when those down times creep up on us.

I remember visiting this community for the first time in 2008 -- while still working multiple jobs and enduring commutes from hell in L.A. -- and thinking "Oh, wow! If only I could live here in this beautiful place, if only I could be retired and have my time be my own, I would be so happy! Life would be wonderful!"

And, largely speaking, I have been delighted with my new life --  retired from everything but writing and living in my dream community. But, like anyone else, I have my fleeting down times: perhaps when I remember how life was before -- so many years ago -- when I was a successful full-time writer before all those other jobs became necessary and thinking now about how hard it is --now that I have the time and financial security to write exactly what I want -- to re-establish myself in a much-changed publishing world. Or I may have minutes of sadness when I think of the huge age gap between me and my niece Maggie and wonder if I'll be around to see her blossom into a young adult. Or sometimes the dark moments have no reason, but simply waft over me like a troubling breeze and then are gone.

These dark moments are part of all our lives. Happiness as a goal or as a constant emotional state is simply not sustainable. Living fully means embracing all that life brings -- the joyful feelings and the darker ones -- and valuing both as part of our personal growth. These feelings are much like nature's seasons -- cold, dark days of winter followed by the sweetness of spring and the warmth of summer and the beauty of fall.  Seasons and the full range of our feelings are all part of the predictable and normal rhythm of life in this world.

Allowing ourselves to feel depressed or anxious or lonely or sad, to fully experience a moment of despair keeps us in touch with reality. Accepting the darker times, embracing the full range of our feelings, can end up making joy, when it comes, that much sweeter.


  1. This is such an insightful post. I truly learned some things from it. I still feel horror at your friend's experience in being held hostage- that could have turned out so differently! Thank you, once again, for such a well written and informative piece!

  2. Many words of wisdom here, Kathy. When I look over my life I can say, yes, I have had a happy life. Not because there is no sadness or regret or fear, not because I haven't made mistakes, sometimes serious -- but because of the love I have received and been able to give. It's not about some single magical moment or moments or where I am or what I have.

  3. Amen, sister. I am so glad you wrote this affirming post. After my daughter's death, a wise therapist advised me to acknowledge every feeling. Feelings just are. I am grateful for that advice. I have had dark, unhappy, guilty feelings which I have acknowledged. I have had deep anger. I also have felt great joy and some silliness. In other words, I am moving forward in life because I have acknowledged that while life is not a bed of roses, it also gives me wonderful opportunities to smell the roses and delight in the beauty of it all. This is an important message to all of us.

  4. Alleluia! This is one of the most sobering talks on the subject I've ever read. If we don' experience a range of emotions, we remain superficial, child like, always pouting about this or that. Our character comes from all the ups and downs we have experienced.